NACWA’s SSI Lawsuit is about Getting the Regulations Right

Recently, NACWA filed its opening legal brief in litigation with EPA over a new rule to regulate air emissions from sewage sludge incinerators (SSIs) under the Clean Air Act (CAA).  The brief marks a significant milestone in a multiyear regulatory and legal advocacy effort by NACWA to ensure environmentally appropriate regulation of SSIs. NACWA has tried to work collaboratively with EPA on this issue, but last year EPA abandoned its previous regulatory approach and mandated a new set of SSI air emission standards that are illegal and scientifically flawed. This prompted NACWA to sue the Agency over the rule and embark on the largest litigation effort in the Association’s history.

Now, before we go any farther, let’s be clear about one thing: sewage sludge is not the sexiest topic to be writing (or blogging) about. But it is also a reality of the modern wastewater treatment process, created as a byproduct when domestic wastewater is cleaned and purified before being returned to our Nation’s waterways.  A typical wastewater treatment plant can produce thousands of pounds of sludge in a single day, and it all has to be responsibly disposed of in some fashion.

For many clean water utilities around the nation—about one-third, in fact—incinerating the sludge in SSIs has provided an environmentally responsible and cost effective way to manage sludge for many years.  Unfortunately, EPA’s new SSI rule imposes overly stringent and costly emission limits on SSIs—limits that many agencies will not be able to meet or afford. This situation will force utilities to shut down their SSI units and pursue other more expensive sludge management options. And to top it all off, there will likely be little to no real environmental benefit as a result of the new EPA SSI rule. In fact, the overall environmental effect could even be worse.  

NACWA’s reason for challenging the new SSI rule is not because we believe SSIs shouldn’t be regulated. Instead, our argument is that SSIs should be regulated, but in a responsible manner and under the appropriate legal requirements as envisioned by Congress. NACWA’s lawsuit is focused on making sure that SSI emission limits are established in a more flexible manner—as directed by Congress in both the CAA and the Clean Water Act, which acknowledges the unique environmental and public health role of clean water utilities. NACWA also wants to ensure that SSI regulations are based on valid data, not the flawed numbers used by EPA to develop its rule. Furthermore, NACWA wants to ensure SSI emissions standards will not impose unnecessary costs on utilities and their local ratepayers at a time when communities are already struggling to meet their existing regulatory and financial obligations.    

It may seem odd that the largest lawsuit in NACWA’s history is actually over a CAA regulation and not the CWA. But in reality, this case is exactly in line with one of NACWA core missions, which is to advocate for responsible environmental policies that are scientifically based, technically sound, and cost effective. The need to manage sewage sludge is not going away, so let’s make sure the regulations in place to govern sludge management are done right. 

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